Spain on less than $100 a day? Airfare included? You scoff.
But I take off from JFK with a couple aces up my sleeve. First, a visit to Pueblo Ingles, a total-immersion language campus that boards and feeds volunteers whose only skill is speaking passable English. Then, I will stay in Madrid without a costly hotel tab thanks to CouchSurfing.com, an online community of people willing to open their homes to fellow travelers.
Play these cards right, and I'll have a glorious time in sunny Iberia for the cost of a $404 plane ticket and a few incidentals.
At least that's the plan.
The first bad omen comes in the form of the thick clouds hanging over the Spanish capital. The jet punches through the gray mist and for the next few days, the rain in Spain falls mainly on ... well, everywhere I am. And airport coffee is a pricey $3.75.
But my arrival is brightened by a sunny Coloradan named Brian Bolles, my emissary from Pueblo Ingles. During a two-hour bus ride and a delicious lunch in the university town of Salamanca, he tells me how he came as a volunteer several years back and never left.
Hearing him describe the program (and mention of a Spanish temptress), his biography makes sense. Volunteers from around the English-speaking world are given eight days of lodging, food and ground transportation simply for conversing with Spanish business professionals.
While the locals spend a couple thousand dollars a week to practice their English in rustic comfort, the "Anglos" get to enjoy the same digs for free, in exchange for simply chatting with them.
"I can do this," I think. "I'll sip a Sangria and wave hello to the occasional passing Spaniard. How hard can it be?"
We drive down the billboard-free highway into the high country of the Castile and Leon region. Our "English Village" is located near the medieval town of La Alberca, where are group of Spanish school teachers awaits, honing their conversational skills with Americans, Canadians, Australians and Scotts, aged 20-65.
Dusk falls as we pull into a cluster of cottage-style villas with stone chimneys and tile roofs. We enter the common room and are welcomed by a fire in the hearth, and conversation in the air. Before long, I learn most of the Americans came with the same frugal motivation.
"I don't have to pay for room and board, PLUS I came on frequent flier miles," an Alaskan named Christine Donovan tells me. "Which was amazing. A miracle. I think I spent $250 on taxes and fees."
Ana Mora, her new Spanish friend, is just as effusive.
"It's not only about language, it's about culture," Mora says, "and we're getting to know people from all around the world. And getting to know each other is great. Everyone here is SO enthusiastic."
The rooms prove to be just as inviting as the common area, set in a "Romeo and Juliet," two-story style. To help enforce the "English-only" rule, a Spaniard stays in one room with an Anglo in the other and they share a living space and kitchenette.
But it becomes quickly obvious that very little time is spent in the room. When they promise their paying customers "total immersion" in English, they mean it. My naïve Sangria fantasies are quickly doused when I hear ... "the bell."